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FAA Reauthorization Nears Passage--UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Feb-2012 (Updated: 06-Feb-2012 11:47 PM)

UPDATE:  The Senate passed the bill on Monday as expected.

ORIGINAL STORY:  The House passed a compromise version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill (H.R. 658) on Friday and the Senate plans to vote on it Monday.  A four-year extension of current regulations concerning private human spaceflight is included.

Disputes primarily over labor issues have derailed the bill many times since September 2007 when the last authorization expired.  Congress passed 23 temporary extensions in the meantime and finally appears to have decided that enough is enough and will pass a compromise that will reauthorize the agency through September 2015. 

Among FAA's many responsibilities is facilitating and regulating commercial space launches through the Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  The office was created by the 1984 Commercial Space Transportation Act, which has been amended several times, most recently in 2004 when Congress put in place temporary rules regarding commercial human space transportation.  At the time, commercial suborbital flights with companies like Virgin Galactic were expected to begin soon.   Congress chose a light regulatory touch to stimulate the commercial potential of this sector, setting requirements for crews, but essentially letting passengers -- "space flight participants" -- decide for themselves if they want to climb aboard after being informed of the risks.  The law said that after eight years of experience with commercial human spaceflight, the FAA could consider stronger regulations if needed.

Eight years have passed, however, and the first commercial human spaceflight has yet to occur.   Some in the industry sought to change the law so that the current approach would be extended until eight years after the first commercial human spaceflight, but Sec. 827 of this bill extends it only until October 1, 2015. 

Iran Reports Launching Satellite

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Feb-2012 (Updated: 04-Feb-2012 08:29 AM)

Iran reported yesterday that it launched its Navid satellite into orbit.  

The U.S. Strategic Command's SpaceTrack website does not list the satellite yet, but Iran's FARS news agency stated that the satellite was launched on "10-Day Dawn celebrations, marking the 33rd anniversary of the victory of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979."  The satellite reportedly weighs 50 kilograms.  According to FARS, it is a "telecom, measurement and scientific satellite whose records could be used in a wide range of fields."   Another Iranian news agency, IRNA, said that it was for "meteorology, management of natural disasters and measuring the temperature and humidity of the air."

The full name of the satellite is Navid-e Elm-o SAna'at' -- Promise of Science and Industry.

Iran has launched two other satellites:  Omid in 2009 and Rasad in 2011. 

NRC Says Yes to NASA Participation in ESA's Euclid Mission

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Feb-2012 (Updated: 03-Feb-2012 03:50 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) issued its report today on whether NASA should make a modest hardware contribution to Europe's Euclid dark energy mission valued at about $20 million in exchange for one seat on Euclid's 12-person science committee and early access to Euclid data.  The NRC endorsed NASA's plan.

The report was requested by NASA and executed by the NRC on an expedited basis because the European Space Agency (ESA) needs an agreement to be signed through the U.S. State Department by the end of April if the United States wants to participate.  Consequently the committee was able to meet only once.   At that meeting, several committee members expressed concern about whether even a small contribution to Euclid would negatively affect plans for a U.S. dark energy mission.   The most recent NRC decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics identified the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as its highest priority large space mission, which has dark energy research as one of its three objectives.

Plans for building WFIRST are being delayed because of cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).   The earliest WFIRST launch date now is about 2022 while Euclid is planned for launch in 2019.   By providing the hardware for the Euclid mission, U.S. scientists will get early access to Euclid's data and one of 12 seats on the Euclid science team.  The agreement does not involve any exchange of funds between the United States and Europe.  NASA will pay for the hardware development and provide the hardware to ESA.  Exactly what hardware NASA will provide still must be negotiated, but ESA is particularly interested in U.S. near-infrared detectors.

The committee was careful to state that the contribution to Euclid "should be made in the context of a strong U.S. commitment to ... WFIRST...."  and its "intent has been clear that this report does not alter ... plans for implementation of the [decadal] survey's priorities."

The NRC committee that produced the 2010 decadal survey, New Worlds New Horizons, and recommended development of WFIRST was aware of ESA's plans for Euclid, but ESA had not yet selected Euclid for development.  That occurred last fall.    By then, the depth of the cost overrun on JWST had crystallized and, coupled with the outlook for sharply constrained budgets for many years, NASA began looking for other ways to pursue dark energy research.   Dark energy is thought to comprise more than 70 percent of the universe.  It is called "dark" because scientists do not know what it is.   They know the universe is expanding at a rate faster than earlier theorized and coined the term dark energy to refer to the force or phenomenon that is fueling that expansion.

NASA earlier proposed a greater U.S. contribution to Euclid, but the U.S. astrophysics community was not supportive for fear it would drain resources from WFIRST or other U.S. space science priorities.   The $20 million proposal that NASA offered this time apparently was the right order of magnitude to win that support.  An internal NASA advisory subcommittee earlier had approved the idea as well.  The $20 million represents about 10 percent of the cost of Euclid's instruments and is usually referred to as NASA having a "10 percent role in Euclid," but it is not 10 percent of the cost of the project overall.

Suffredini: Space Station Launch Delays Will Have Little Impact on Overall Operations-Correction

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2012 (Updated: 03-Feb-2012 08:52 AM)

Correction:  An earlier verison of this posting misspelled Mr. Suffredini's name as Sufferdini.

NASA International Space Station (ISS) program manager Mike Suffredini said today that although the launch of the next crew to the ISS will be delayed and other aspects of the schedule juggled, overall there will be virtually no impact on ISS operations.

The next crew was supposed to be launched to ISS on March 30.   Last week, however, their Soyuz descent capsule was badly damaged in a testing accident.  Russia has decided to use an entirely different Soyuz module rather than trying to replace just the descent part of it and is pulling up the next Soyuz that already is in manufacturing.   That will delay the launch until May 15.

Consequently, the ISS partners are making modest changes to the crew rotation schedule that will also impact when the next automated Russian cargo spacecraft, Progress, is launched.   ISS crews rotate on a roughly six month schedule, with three astronauts ferried to and from ISS on a single Soyuz spacecraft.  With a regular crew complement of six, that means four Soyuz spacecraft are docking with and undocking from the ISS every year.  Added to that are the automated cargo spacecraft -- Russia's Progress, which are launched between four and six times a year, plus Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV, each about once a year.   Thus, ISS is a traffic hub, with complicating factors such as sun angles dictating when certain launch and docking operations occur.

Suffredini played down the idea that the changes due to the Soyuz testing failure problem would have any long term impact on ISS operations and the scientific research the crews are conducting.   What affects scientific research is the number of crew aboard.   A hiccup last year because of a Russian launch failure (of a Progress cargo spacecraft in August) meant only three instead of six crew members were aboard for longer than expected, reducing scientific output.   Now that the six-person complement has been restored, astronauts are working hard to make up the difference so the goal of an average of 35 hours per week over the course of an "expedition" is maintained.   Right now, the astronauts are spending more than that on science to make up for the lost time last fall.

He also expressed confidence in the part of the Russian space program that produces the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft and their launch vehicles.   In response to a question from a reporter about other failures, such as the Phobos-Grunt Mars mission, Sufferdini said that was outside his area of expertise.   He stressed that he is confident of the Russian company, Energia, that manufactures the spacecraft for the ISS program and of its ability to investigate and remedy failures when they occur.

On a separate but related issue, he also talked about the upcoming launch of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft to ISS.   The next test launch of Dragon and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle recently slipped from February 7 to March 20.  It will demonstrate the ability of Dragon to berth with ISS.   Dragon is designed to be used as a cargo spacecraft for ISS and NASA has Space Act Agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to help them develop "commercial cargo" systems.  They were supposed to be operational by this year, as NASA's contract with Russia to take cargo to the ISS runs out.  (Its contract to take crews to and from ISS is separate.)

Suffredini expressed no surprise that the SpaceX test launch slipped to March 20 and said that his personal belief is that it will slip to the first week in April while stressing that was not a firm statement, just his expectation based on years of experience.    Delaying until early April is not a problem in his view.    The key is to avoid a conflict with the next Progress launch and docking in mid-April.  He said that all the ISS partners, not only Russia, must agree to the SpaceX test berthing and they had just had a meeting in which they all said they were "comfortable" with the plan.

He added that because of the Russian cargo spacecraft failure last fall,  Russia owes NASA a certain amount of cargo capacity to the ISS.  If the U.S. commercial cargo efforts of SpaceX and Orbital are delayed, that should buy NASA some time into the early part of 2013.


NASA Media Teleconference Today on Changes to ISS Launch Schedule

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Feb-2012 (Updated: 02-Feb-2012 02:34 PM)

NASA will hold a media teleconference at 2:00 pm Central Time (3:00 pm ET) this afternoon to discuss changes to the International Space Station (ISS) schedule.

NASA says the teleconference at Johnson Space Center will discuss "progress toward an updated schedule."   The next crew launch to the ISS has been delayed because the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was to take the crew into space was damaged during testing and is unusable.  Russia will provide a replacement spacecraft, but the launch will be delayed from March 30 until the end of April or middle of May.

Meanwhile, the next test launch of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle already had been delayed because more work was needed.  That test is intended to demostrate Dragon's ability to berth with the ISS as part of SpaceX's effort to provide earth-to-ISS cargo services for NASA.

The teleconference will be streamed live at

NRC Prioritizes 16 Technologies for NASA Development, Calls Again for Pu-238 Restart

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Feb-2012 (Updated: 01-Feb-2012 12:03 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) released the final report from its committee that has been reviewing NASA's technology roadmaps for the past year.  The roadmaps were developed by NASA's Office of Chief Technologist (OCT), then headed by Bobby Braun.  Braun returned to Georgia Tech shortly after the NRC committee released an interim report last fall.  This final report identifies 16 high priority technologies for NASA investment over the next five years.

The technology priorities in the report are not tied to specific NASA missions, but instead to one of three "technology objectives" -- extend and sustain human activities beyond low Earth orbit, explore the evolution of the solar system and the potential for life elsewhere, and expand our understanding of Earth and the universe in which we live.   The NRC committee stressed that the "objectives are not independent, and more than one objective may be addressed by a single mission...."

Taking into account the constrained budget environment NASA faces in the years ahead, the committee selected a "short list" of 16 technologies that need investment in the next five years.   (The table in the report showing the 16 technologies is arranged by the three technology objectives.  Some technologies appear under more than one objective, however, so there are 16 rather than 23 as a quick reading might infer.)  The committee believes the 16 could be "reasonably accommodated within the most likely expected funding level available for technology development by OCT (in the range of $500 million to $1 billion annually)."  The 16 are:

  • Radiation Mitigation for Human Spaceflight
  • Long-Duration Crew Health
  • GN&C
  • (Nuclear) Thermal Propulsion
  • Lightweight and Multifunctional Materials and Structures
  • Fission Power Generation
  • Solar Power Generation (Photovoltaic and Thermal)
  • Electric Propulsion
  • In-Situ Instruments and Sensors
  • Extreme Terrain Mobility
  • Optical Systems (Instruments and Sensors)
  • High Contrast Imaging and Spectroscopy Technologies
  • Detectors and Focal Planes
  • Active Thermal Control of Cryogenic Systems

The committee identified two technologies that it considered to be at a "tipping point" where a relatively small investment could produce a large payoff in readiness:  Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generators (ASRG) and On-Orbit Cryogenic Storage and Transfer.

ASRGs require less plutonium-238 (Pu-238) than today's radioistope power systems, but still require some, and the committee emphasized that restarting Pu-238 production is still "urgently needed."  The NRC already highlighted the need for restarting Pu-238 production in two earlier reports -- one specifically addressing the Pu-238 issue in 2009 and the planetary science decadal survey published in 2011.   Congress has provided NASA with its half of the funding needed to restart production, but the other half is in the Department of Energy's (DOE's) budget and DOE's appropriators remain unconvinced that DOE should pay any of those costs.  DOE owns the facilities where the production would take place, but it is NASA that needs the Pu-238. 

Russian Officials Confirm Delay in Next ISS Crew Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jan-2012 (Updated: 31-Jan-2012 09:01 PM)

Russian space officials confirmed today that the next launch of a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) will be delayed until the end of April or mid-May.   The delay is due to a testing failure of the Soyuz descent module last week.

Russian space agency (Roscosmos) director Vladimir Popovkin said the launch would be postponed until the end of April.  The mission, Soyuz TMA-04M, was supposed to be launched March 30.   Alexei Krasnov, the head of human spaceflight programs at Roscosmos, told RIA Novosti that the launch would be delayed 30-45 days, or possibly until mid-May, and the exact date would be established after consultation with NASA.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and several European countries, with NASA and Roscosmos holding the key roles in ISS operations.

The three crew-members who will be launched on this mission are Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and NASA's Joseph Acaba.

According to, the Soyuz descent capsule was subjected to higher pressures than expected during a test last week and a weld ruptured making the capsule unusable.

Phobos-Grunt Failure: Cosmic Rays or Counterfeit Chips?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jan-2012 (Updated: 31-Jan-2012 08:44 PM)

The Russian media have been reporting today on their interpretation of the results of the investigation into the failure of the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) mission.   Itar-Tass, the official news service of the Russian government, says it was a computer problem, but was the real culprit cosmic rays or counterfeit computer chips?

Itar-Tass reported that the computer system did a double re-start, as explained yesterday on  The Itar-Tass story says the double-restart caused the spacecraft to go into a standby mode and was caused by the "local influence of heavy charged particles" or because the computer chips "may have been counterfeit."   Sticking to the charged-particle explanation,  Itar-Tass goes on to say that the institute that built the spacecraft, NPO Lavochkin, should have taken these particles -- cosmic rays -- into account in designing the system, and Lavochkin officials were "administratively punished" as a result.  Another Itar-Tass story blamed computer programmers.

Another important Russian media outlet, RIA Novosti, added  that counterfeit computer chips  "may have been imported" and were to blame.  But it goes on to say that the commission that investigated the failure "ruled out any 'external or foreign influence"" as the reason for the failure.  Some Russian officials had blamed a U.S. radar in the Marshall Islands for inadvertently damaging the spacecraft as it flew overhead.

Russian space agency director Vladimir Popovkin is looking towards the future, not the past.  He told RIA Novosti that Russia might build a replacement for Phobos-Grunt if the European Space Agency decides not to include Russia in its upcoming Mars mission, ExoMars.


Zak: Phobos-Grunt Doomed by Computer Design, Testing Flaws, Not U.S. Radar

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jan-2012 (Updated: 30-Jan-2012 01:12 PM)

The Russian commission investigating the failure of the Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) Mars mission concluded that computer design error and insufficient testing were the reasons the probe never left Earth orbit, not interference from a U.S. radar according to Anatoly Zak at  Zak summarizes the commission's findings on his website today.   Russia's news agency Itar-Tass reported over the weekend that the findings would  be presented to Russia's space agency director yesterday and made public this week, but neither it nor other leading Russian media sources have published anything yet today.

Zak reports on his website that the "most probable cause ... was a simultaneous robooting of two operational processors in the main computer....  The computers could crash as a result of errors in their software or as a result of some external reasons, such as electromagnetic incompatibility, industry sources said.  The mentioning of this last point ... apparently became a basis for numerous reports in the Russian press blaming the failure on various improbable external reasons, such as foreign radars or solar flares."

"Foreign radars" refers to assertions by some Russian officials that a U.S. radar based in the Marshall Islands inadvertently damaged Phobos-Grunt while it was being used to study asteroids and the orbiting spacecraft passed through the beam.  Yuri Koptev, former head of the Russian space agency who chaired the commission investigating the Phobos-Grunt failure, said that his group would conduct an experiment to prove or disprove the theory.

Zak reports that tests were conducted by NPO Lavochkin, which manufactured Phobos-Grunt, to determine if the computer could have been affected "by interference from the probe's own power supply or from unlikely external sources, such as a narrow powerful beam of a ground radar.  During these tests, the computer withstood all simulations without any problems."

Therefore, "[w]ith all external failure scenarios effectively debunked, the most probable cause of the failure was narrowed down to the lack of integrated testing" of the computer, Zak states.

NRC Lukewarm About NASA's Proposed Space Radiation Cancer Risk Model

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jan-2012 (Updated: 30-Jan-2012 12:17 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) issued a report today evaluating changes NASA is proposing to make on how it estimates the risk that astronauts could develop cancer because of exposure to radiation in space.   The report concluded that the proposed changes are better than the current model NASA is using, but still needs improvements.

The study committee, chaired by R. Julian Preston of the Environmental Protection Agency, assessed changes NASA is proposing to its current model for estimating the risk of radiation-induced cancer in astronauts.   The existing model was most recently updated in 2005.  Last year NASA proposed changes based on new findings from a number of sources. 

Overall, the NRC committee concluded that the proposed changes represent the state-of-the-art, but  "There remains a need for additional data to be developed to enhance the current approach and to reduce uncertainty in the model."

The committee complained that "NASA's proposed model and associated uncertainties are complex" and "require a very clear and precise set of descriptions," that were not provided in NASA's published report.  Thus, the committee found it difficult to review, and while it asked NASA for clarifications throughout its deliberations, not all of the ambiguities were resolved.

"The overall evaluation of the committee is that NASA’s proposed model represents a definite improvement over the previous one. However, the committee urges that the necessary improvements identified by the specific recommendations provided [herein] be incorporated before the proposed integrated model is implemented."





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